Way to go, pinot grigio

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Italians call it pinot grigio. The French call it pinot gris. In the United States, folks are calling it the hottest emerging wine varietal since merlot.

If you had gone into a good wine store about five years ago and asked for a California pinot grigio, you'd have been more likely to get a funny look than a bottle of wine. Now that same store will likely give you a choice of a half-dozen wines.

In spite of its trend-setting reputation, California has been a laggard in the gris/grigio market. For about two decades, Oregon winemakers have been achieving fine results with this excellent white-wine grape, known in that state as pinot gris.

In both states, and to a lesser extent in Washington and other states, gris/grigio is giving consumers a welcome alternative to chardonnay.

Typically, American pinot gris/grigio is less dependent than chardonnay on oak barrels for its flavors. Where chardonnay typically displays flavors of apple and lemon, a gris/grigio is more likely to suggest pear or melon.

At the same time, pinot grigio (we'll go with that name because California has more electoral votes) is more similar to chardonnay than many other white-wine varieties. Just about any food that goes well with chardonnay will show even better with pinot grigio.

The varietal reaches its peak in Alsace, France. There it produces wines that are full-bodied, fruity and creamy in texture. It can reach levels of complexity that can rival the greatest white wines of Burgundy.

Much better known to U.S. consumers is Italy's pinot grigio, which tends to be a much lighter, more herbal wine. U.S. producers have tended to steer a path between the two styles.

A recent tasting of American pinot grigios found high overall quality when the wine doesn't languish in the distribution system. Consumers should generally go with the most recent vintage they can find.

These are some of the more noteworthy California pinot grigios:

2002 Benessere Pinot Grigio, Napa-Carneros ($20). This top-notch producer has given us a complex, full-bodied wine with flavors of nuts, lemon, pear, herbs, lime and white pepper.

2002 Estancia Pinot Grigio ($11). This wine doesn't carry a prestigious geographic appellation, but its taste ranks among the best. It has the full-bodied, plump character of a fine Alsace pinot gris, with abundant melon and spice flavors.

2002 Rancho Zabaco Reserve Pinot Grigio, Somoma Coast ($20). Complex mineral and herb flavors dominate this extremely food-friendly wine, the best I've encountered from this winery.

2001 Luna Vineyards Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley ($20). It's holding up well at two years of age, but it's time to drink this mature, well-crafted, complex white wine with abundant melon and spice flavors.

2001 La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi Pinot Grigio ($16). Sweet pea, lime and mint are among the appealing flavor notes in this well-made Italian-style wine.

(The Mondavi family, meanwhile, should recall the 2001 Woodbridge Robert Mondavi Pinot Grigio. The wine is over the hill.)

The 2001 Robert Pepi Willamette Valley Pinot Grigio ($10) is an Oregon wine made by a California winery. It was a successful move. It's a crisp, mineral-flavored wine in the style of the top Italian pinot grigios.

Oregon's winemakers generally prefer the name pinot gris, and the wines are often excellent. Some examples:

2002 Chehalem Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($19). This is a superlative effort, with exceptional complexity and lively charm. Stylistically, it leans more toward Alsace than Italy - with bold flavors of nuts, melon, honey and minerals. It begs to be served with Pacific salmon.

2002 WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley ($21). Like a wine that gets right in your face and demands attention? That's what this aggressive but winning wine does with its intense flavors of minerals, herbs and sweet peas.

2000 Adelsheim Oregon Pinot Gris ($15). It's generally risky to drink American gris/grigio at three years, but this complex, full-bodied wine has aged like a fine Alsace wine. Especially noteworthy is the long finish.

2001 King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris ($16). This wine has an especially broad palette of flavors: pear, minerals, melons, oranges, lychees, sweet pea, nutmeg. No one flavors stands out in this fascinating mix.

2002 Duck Pond Oregon Pinot Gris, Fries Family Cellars ($12). There's a nice peppery bite to this breezy, Italian-style white wine. It's not as complex as the previous four but it still has plenty of charm.

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